Of mountains and mole hills at the Masters

Poulter

AUGUSTA — If you think the media in America can be tough on celebrities, we treat our athletes with kid gloves compared to the tabloids in Britain.

Just ask England's Ian Poulter, who has been fending off comments he made a few weeks ago about striving to be the second best golfer in the world.

What Poulter said was that his goal was to be No. 2 in the world, a position currently occupied by Phil Mickelson. But he got in trouble when he said, "The problem is I haven't played to my full potential yet. And when that happens, it will just be me and Tiger."

His comment was meant as a sincere compliment to Tiger Woods, the undisputed No. 1 player on the planet. But when the English press got hold of it, the headlines came off as saying Poulter was challenging Woods.

"I was basically saying how good Tiger was and how achievable I really think it is to get to the No. 2 spot," Poulter reiterated here Thursday at Augusta National after a first-round score of 70 put him among the early leaders at the Masters.

"Amongst the guys, it was friendly banter. But in the newspaper and seeing the comments in there and seeing what people think and comparing me to Tiger. Every English paper had it back page. I was made to look the alien, the idiot, the prat. To be compared to him was a little unfair."

Instant fame

Perhaps it didn't help Poulter's cause that his comments came at a time when he had posed nude behind a golf bag on a magazine cover, making him the topic of torrid conversation around the British Isles.

The fact that he's known as much for his colorful clothes as his golf game also makes him a favorite target, according to an English scribe.

"He represents himself in a big way with his dress and he does some outrageous things," said James Lawton, a veteran sports writer with The Independent newspaper of London. "But he does benefit from that because we are very oriented to that kind of celebrity culture."

Which is good news and bad news for athletes as the British press follows them around the globe in search of a good headline.

"They (tabloids) know what their market is," Lawton said. "They know what people want to read. They don't want to read some fine analysis of his golf game. So I think Poulter is definitely a product of that culture and he's profited because of it. You know, it's instant fame."

Teapot tempest

Of the tempest in the British teapot, the 32-year-old Poulter smiled and said, "It was pretty difficult for a few days, but I think I've weathered it pretty good."

Much the way he weathered this golf course Thursday, playing what he considered one of the best rounds of his career, complete with a hole-in-one at the par 3, 16th hole.

"It was pretty much a flawless ball-striking round of golf," said Poulter, who hit 16 greens in regulation, but missed a few makable putts. "I couldn't want to strike it any better. I wouldn't want to putt the ball in any better position on the green in terms of proximity to the hole."

Unless, of course, you don't have to putt at all. Which is what happened on 16 when Poulter flushed an 8-iron from 169 yards, watched the ball hit 25 feet right of the pin and roll down into the hole as Woods watched from an adjacent tee box.

"An unbelievable rush," he said of the shot on 16, where Woods famously chipped in for birdie in 2005. "It was a special moment. The hairs on the back of your neck were standing up. It was great."

The British tabloids, of course, might report the incident a bit differently. To them, today's headline might be, "Poulter Taunts Tiger With Ace."

And you thought we invented mole hills.

Reach Ken Burger at 937-5598 kburger@postandcourier.com.